Last Monday marked the end of the line for Oakland's Integrated Environmental Systems. A competitor bought the medical-waste incinerator, closed the trouble-prone plant, and laid off its 70 employees. The new owner, an Illinois-based megacorporation called Stericycle, will keep IES's trucks and its contracts with California hospitals and clinics.
And so concludes one chapter in an enduring controversy. To environmentalists, IES was the prototypical corporate earth-wrecker, a toxin-spewing business with little concern for the largely Latino neighborhood downwind. The company was a subsidiary of trash-collection giant Norcal Waste Systems.
"This is the ultimate David-versus-Goliath victory," said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction. "We've been deluged with messages from people across the country saying this victory is an inspiration to them."
The key issue in the four-year struggle was dioxin, a hypercarcinogenic chlorine compound. IES burned some 4,600 tons of hospital refuse annually, and tests showed the incinerator, even when functioning properly, was emitting small amounts of dioxin from its smokestacks.
IES's abysmal track record was also a source of constant irritation for greens. During the past five years the plant racked up more than 100 air pollution violations, giving the company one of the longest environmental rap sheets in the state. And in November the company paid out nearly $1 million to settle a heap of charges – including a state Department of Health Services claim that IES mishandled more than 1,400 barrels of pathological material.
Though IES sought to minimize the pressure it was under from regulators and environmentalists – "Economics were the driving factor in this deal," company spokesperson Jay Silverberg said – that pressure almost certainly made selling the plant an attractive option.
But the clear skies over Oakland could mean an increase in air pollution elsewhere.
With $600 million in assets, Stericycle is the dominant player in the medical-waste biz, employing a variety of technologies at its 36 facilities. The company's newer plants, including three in California, use steam autoclaves or oscillating electrical waves to destroy pathogens without generating toxic emissions. Other facilities rely on incineration. A portion of the waste once torched at IES will go to autoclaves in California, while the rest will be shipped to incinerators in Arizona and Utah, Rich Kogler, Stericycle's CEO, told the Bay Guardian.
We were unable to dig up much information about Stericycle's plants in California and the Southwest, but at least two of the corporation's facilities – in Missouri and Washington – have apparently made some serious blunders.
Public documents show the company's St. Louis incinerator was busted for 96 air pollution violations in December 2000, including excessive emissions of toxic mercury and hydrogen chloride. When the Missouri Department of Natural Resources came after the corporation for $200,000 in fines, Stericycle balked, asking the department to knock the fine down to $25,000. "The proposed penalty is far greater than any penalty sought in the past ten years," Stericycle officials wrote to the state.
"We have no precedent for a source with 96 violations," state environmental enforcement chief Steven Feeler shot back in a letter. "The potential liability for these violations would approach $1,000,000, so we feel our offer is fair."
Another issue: the company's own tests show the St. Louis plant is putting out far more dioxin than IES ever did.
In 1997 Stericycle's autoclave facility in Washington ran into trouble with the federal and state authorities when three workers at the plant contracted tuberculosis, which can be fatal. A team of 14 public health officials, including researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were sent to the plant to investigate. "Processing contaminated medical waste resulted in transmission of M tuberculosis to at least one medical waste treatment facility worker," concluded the researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The debacle led to a $1,100 fine for failing to require "thorough employee decontamination," according to public records on file at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.
Still, Stericycle's Kogler is unwilling to acknowledge these well-documented snafus. He claims the St. Louis air quality problems "were primarily reporting and paperwork violations." On the T.B. outbreak, Kogler said: "So far as I know there was never anything definitive linking Stericycle" to the ailing employees. "We have a commitment to protect not just our employees but also to protect the communities where we're located."
Kogler's spin doesn't placate Mike Green at Oakland's Center for Environmental Health. "Their record is not good," Green told us. "We're enthusiastic that Stericycle is not going to incinerate in the Bay Area, but we don't want them to stop here and start incinerating our waste in Utah or Arizona. We don't want to ship our problem elsewhere."
Click here to download a PDF of this article.